Jeff Wall at Fondation Beyeler: An Impressive Restrospective

Jeff Wall, Parent Child (2018). Source: White Cube

Jeff Wall’s retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler presents a thematic dialogue that spans the exceptional oeuvre of the pioneer of staged photography. The exhibition showcases his famous transparencies in lightboxes as well as black-and-white and color works. 

Wall gained recognition in the late 1970s for his conceptual large-format pictorial photography. His work is deeply intellectual, synthesizing photography with elements from other art forms such as painting, cinema, and literature, a method he terms “cinematography.” His images, often inspired by daily life and art history, resemble carefully crafted film stills and can take years to complete.

His inspiration for creating large, backlit photographs came from observing an illuminated advertisement through a bus window. Drawing on his knowledge of Western pictorial tradition, acquired during his art history studies at London’s Courtauld Institute, and influenced by his recent visit to the Prado in Madrid, Wall combined these elements with an interest in contemporary media. This fusion resulted in one of the most influential visions in contemporary art.

Wall refers to his photographs as ‘prose poems,’ inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s writings, emphasizing the experience over a specific narrative understanding. His images capture a moment in a scenario, leaving the before and after unknown, inviting multiple interpretations. The prose poem format keeps truth claims suspended, allowing the viewer to derive pleasure from the state of ambiguity. Wall believes that this suspension of facts, typical in journalistic photography, enhances the viewer’s experience.

Curated by Martin Schwander and Charlotte Sarrazin, the retrospective, spanning eleven rooms, presents a thematic and formal dialogue between recent works and iconic early pieces, with several new works being publicly displayed for the first time.

The exhibition demonstrates Wall’s unwavering observation of social interactions and human reality, challenging the conventional notion of photography as a solely documentary medium. It also displays Wall’s efforts to broaden the possibilities of photography.

Jeff Wall (1946) graduated from the University of British Columbia and the Courtauld Institute of Art. His work has been exhibited internationally at prestigious institutions such as MoMA, Tate Modern, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst. Wall is the recipient of multiple honors, including the Roswitha Haftmann Prize and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. He is based in Vancouver and Los Angeles.


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